The video for E-bow the Letter is basically a walk through the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. A limited understanding of Kabbalah is needed to decipher the symbolism used in the video, and while I’m somewhat new to the subject myself, I think I’ve got this one figured out for the most part. let’s start with a quick definition from Wikipedia:
The Tree of Life is a classic descriptive term for the central mystical symbol used in the Kabbalah of esoteric Judaism, also known as the 10 Sephiroth. Its diagrammatic representation, arranged in 3 columns/pillars, derives from Christian and esoteric sources and is not known to the earlier Jewish tradition. The tree, visually or conceptually, represents a series of divine emanations of God’s creation itself, the nature of revealed divinity, the human soul, and the spiritual path of ascent by man. In this way, Kabbalists developed the symbol into a full model of reality, using the tree to depict a map of Creation.
There are 22 paths or vibrations on the Tree of Life, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are also 22 cards in the Major Arcana of the Tarot, and each of these corresponds to a Hebrew letter and a path on the Tree of Life.
Sephiroth: Sphere’s of light, emanations from the divine. Receptacles that hold particular energies as they stream down from the divine source. This is represented by the 10 spheres on the tree.
In two of R.E.M.’s songs (Electrolite and Electron Blue) Stipe refers to River as a source of light/energy/electricity. This concept is also seen in the video for Country Feedback which has a similar sound and feel as E-bow. The song’s title refers to the E-Bow, an electromagnetic field-generating device that induces sustained vibration in an electric guitar string.
Directed by Jem Cohen, the special attention to lighting and the views of cityscapes is similar to the video for Country Feedback which was also directed by Cohen. Both songs are similar in sound, as well as R.E.M.’s farewell song Blue (also about River) written about fifteen years later.
The video begins with Michael Stipe riding a bus and displaying the hand sign for meditation/Kabbalah. He’s letting us know what to look for as the stream of freeway traffic, the bright stage lights and the flickering office buildings symbolize the flow of River’s energy. He illuminates the universe. Notice also the rotating spheres of light on stage representing the 10 sephiroths from the Tree of Life.
In one particular scene we see a car parked outside of a warehouse building which is reminiscent of the Strange Currencies video. It’s a familiar set with the stairs, the street lights and even the car resembling their previous video based on River’s death. The scene fades into a blinking light as Peter Buck uses an E-bow to play his guitar. A vibration of energy. A musical letter.
Stipe is then shown writing his letter to River. After a few more shots of the band illuminated by the stage lights, Stipe is seen riding on a bus in a sort of trance that signifies his mental absence. He’s being taken for a ride. Someone else is behind the wheel. In the next scene, the stage lights are turned off (representing River’s death) as he sits in a dark room and wipes his eyes, confused as to how his friend (and possibly lover) died. The lyrics coincide with this concept: I wear my own crown of sadness and sorrow and who’d of thought tomorrow could be so strange.
Through the passing of a chain-linked fence, a small black object appears which is too small to make out but I’m guessing is an E-bow. Stipe’s letter fell by the wayside. It might also represent River’s death outside of the Viper Room on the sidewalk. Aluminum the weakest link.
The star on the office building represents the sun/God/the afterlife. As a car passes by in the background, the scene fades into a parking lot. Old cars occupy the spaces as a man in white sits on the concrete wall. In the next scene, another man in a white shirt sits in front of a parked bus watching the passing traffic–the deceased souls waiting for a ride.
“Cinderella Boy, your coach awaits” (from the song Blue)
“A Greyhound pass for the boy in the well” (from the song Boy in the Well)
We then see Stipe asleep in an airport as a woman with a baby stroller walks past. This is another representation of Stipe having blacked out during River’s death, the mother dressed in black a reference to Heart Phoenix. When the lyrics reach the part about seconal, Spanish fly, absinthe, kerosene neck and collar, Patti Smith appears. Smith represents River and his journey towards death. She enters through an open door (River entering the Viper Room) and a design on the glass door brings our attention back to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
Stipe is seen using eye drops ( the amnesiac water) and a woman in a graduation gown pops up behind a silhouetted Patti Smith–River’s passing from one realm to the next. As Smith ascends the elevator the number three appears on the door. On the Tree of Life, the number three Sephiroth represents understanding. The paths leading to this Sephiroth are death and the abyss.
The band appears with their backs turned towards the camera and the strings of light decorating the stage are turned off. Stipe carelessly pulls the microphone back and forth symbolizing struggle and strife. The overhead light dims and Smith is seen on the bus seated under a sign displaying the number fourteen. Nun is the 14th path within the Tree of Life. Nun, meaning “fish” in Hebrew, is known as the letter/vibration/path of depth. It is also recognized as “24” when all elements of the Tree are considered, including each of the 10 Sephira. This is the path of transformation, transmutation, transience, and renewal. The Tarot card associated with Nun is Death.
Smith places her hands on the window and peers out at the passing cityscape like a curious child. When she leans back in her seat we see a woman in a yellow shirt seated on a man’s lap in the back of the bus (another reference to Heart Phoenix sitting on the kingship’s lap). The seats on the opposite side of the bus are red but in the blink of an eye, literally, they turn white. A woman with glasses wearing a white shirt suddenly appears in front of a sleeping Patti Smith. She blinks her eyes and transforms the scene as the passengers, along with the seats, turn white representing River’s ascent into heaven.
The bus Patti Smith is riding is number 24. The number of death. The license plate number is 6782. 6+7+8+2=23.
The next scene brings us back to the last night in question. Smith stands on a sidewalk and jerks her head around. The video then cuts to her standing outside of a building symbolizing River on the sidewalk at the Viper Room. Notice her expression as she slightly turns her head to face the camera when a man dressed in black enters the building. The mean cat. She remains standing against the wall appearing vulnerable and exposed as she watches the man in black, the bus driver. She turns her head again as he exits the building with one hand in his pocket, suggesting he’s got something to hide — the antagonist who can’t be trusted, Stipe’s alter.
A woman wearing a yellow shirt with a blue sweater wrapped around her waist sluggishly appears from a side room, adjusts her bra strap and sits down at the desk. She’s holding a white piece of paper in her hand–a bus ticket. Once again, the woman in yellow represents Heart (just like the Bittersweet Me video). The blue sweater symbolizes River. Blue=water=River in Stipe’s videos and lyrics. She holds the Greyhound pass for the boy in the well.
The camera pans down a scaled fishlike design and an empty red chair appears with an E-bow discarded on the floor against the wall. The hot seat River once occupied is now empty, the letter, again, falls by the wayside. Rips are seen in the chair’s cushion symbolizing death through physical pain, violence and foul play. The camera fades as Michael Stipe is shown sleeping in the airport. A woman in a black suit walks past–another reference to Stipe having blacked out during the night of River’s death. The woman in the black suit represents the kingship and possibly Heart. In the last scene we see a blue sign depicting the symbol for water, a hand sign Stipe displays to this day.